February 12, 2007 12:00 PM

Three-year-old Elly Kulesza was feeling a little antsy, to say the least, when her parents took her aboard an AirTran jet about to leave Fort Myers, Fla., for Boston. She immediately plopped down on the floor in front of her mother, Julie. When, at a flight attendant’s request, Julie tried to place the child in her own seat, Elly wiggled and squirmed and wailed and wailed some more. “I tried to console her, calm her down, but it wasn’t working,” recalls Julie. “It was a temper tantrum … yeah, it was loud.”

So was the controversy that followed. The airline contends Elly would not remain seated with the belt buckled. The girl’s parents insist she was indeed buckled in, although they admit she continued the tantrum. Both sides do agree that after the Jan. 14 screaming fit, a gate agent ordered the entire Kulesza family of Worcester, Mass.—Elly, Julie, 31, a waitress, and husband Gerry, 30, an EMT and nursing student—to leave row 19, seats A, B and C, and get off the plane. Says Julie: “I’m like ‘What? Are you serious?'”

They were. The family was offered a refund and had to wait a day for the next nonstop flight to Boston (on which Elly slept like an angel). But the real indignity, they say, came when the Kuleszas told their story to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, anticipating an outcry against the airline. Instead there was an outcry against the Kuleszas. “We received over 8,000 calls and e-mails,” says AirTran VP Tad Hutcheson. “Right now we’re holding strong at 90 percent in favor of the airline.” Opinions on the paper’s Web site and blogs nationwide were also anti-Elly and her family. Julie Kulesza wonders why. “I just wanted to make the public aware that if you have children, this could happen to you. If there are parents who say their child doesn’t have a tantrum, I want to meet them.”

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